Feb. 27, 2009 -- After 26 years at SeaWorld Orlando, Rita the manatee was released into the wild Thursday in the most dignified way a 3,000-pound sea cow can be released -- by crane.
At 12 feet long, Rita was the largest manatee the park had ever taken care of and was much loved by visitors and staff alike.
To make sure she's safe and never quite out of touch in the wild blue yonder, scientists equipped Rita with a satellite tracking device and have a team of animal rescuers ready to save her "at a moment's notice if she shows any signs of acclimation issues," according to a statement from SeaWorld.
Later today, you can track Rita's progress at SeaWorld.org.
"The ultimate goal for every manatee we rescue is to successfully release the animal back to its natural habitat," the statement read.
But after so long in captivity, some people worry whether Rita will be able to survive on her own.
The statement from SeaWorld cites "mixed results" when long-term-care manatees are released into the wild and note "some tragic losses."
"We are confident that Rita will be well monitored and our team stands ready to immediately bring her back if there are problems," the statement assured.
According to the Wonderful World of the Manatee Web site, the animals can live up to 60 years, meaning Rita, at around 35-years-old, is diving into the second half of her life in the wild.
Although Rita is a curvy 3,000 pounds, she is still a quarter-ton short of some of the biggest manatees, which weigh around 3,500 pounds.
For more information on manatees in general, visit the Wonderful World of the Manatee Web site by clicking here.
From a Crab Trap to SeaWorld to the Wild
Rita came to SeaWorld in 1982 after she was rescued from a crab trap that ensnared one of her flippers.
The injury forced SeaWorld veterinarians to amputate the flipper.
After Rita recovered from that harrowing ordeal, the animal's stay at SeaWorld was expanded when Florida mandated a quarantine of the papilloma virus (PV), to which wildlife officials feared Rita may have been exposed, the statement said.
But recently completed research showed that PV already existed in the wild and, therefore, Rita was not a threat.
To help Rita acclimate to life in the wild, SeaWorld animal care specialists brought in plants from the wild for the animal to eat for weeks before the release.